Oct 18, 2010

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Bob in South America. Part 5 – Cape Horn, the End of the World

Bob blk shirt 2The briefing the night before we visited Cape Horn filled me with a real mix of emotions, from the excitement of a child through to the cautiousness  of a knowing adult as we were shown where we would be going and the dangers of the trip were explained. Safety first at all times. The captain would only let us go ashore if the sea and wind conditions were ok and we would have to be prepared to get back onto the boats at a moments notice for fear of begin stranded on the island. We were warned of rough seas and fast changing weather where danger in the zodiacs would abound.

It just made me want to go even more.

Cape Horn island is the southernmost part of the Americas and further south than any other part of the populated world, save the Antarctic, lying at 55 degrees and 56 south of the equator. It is Chilean territory, although the Argentines have other ideas about that and it is the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Atlantic along the Darwin Passage. It has myth and stories attached to it from the many ships that have attempted to sail around the Cape and failed. Shipwrecks abound and the waters and rocks can be treacherous in the winds of the furious fifties.

My first view of Cape Horn

My first view of Cape Horn

So I woke at dawn, around 5am as we crossed Nassau Bay. During the night we had navigated through the Murray Channel from the Beagle (our ship being the only company allowed to sail this piece of water) and we were now approaching the Woolaston Islands, with Cape Horn at the bottom. The islands are surprisingly green, covered with grasses and low scrub among the rock. The seas was choppy and the wind fairly fresh and our approach to the island was from the east to shelter us from the winds coming in from the Pacific.

Once again I was the only person up and about, however I was soon joined by a Chilean gentleman, Renato, who I fell into conversation with. A trained surgeon, he had been living here on Cape Horn during last summer working for the government as a doctor and medic.

However we had been told that the only inhabitants of the island were the lighthouse keeper, his wife and two children, who spend a year at a time on this remote place. Renato explained that along with a number of others in the archipelago, the island had been covered in land mines during the last dispute of the territory with Argentina. And now the government were clearing these away and he had been part of the camp working with the thirty or so soldiers on the task. So he knew the current lighthouse keeper and family and the Commandante on the island and was  bringing his wife Cecilia from Santiago to see where he had stayed during the previous summer. Reassuringly he told me the work to clear the mines on Cape Horn was complete and they would be shortly moving on to the next shore, Isla Deceito or Deceit Island.

Soon the ship was alive in anticipation. Would we go or was it too rough? The anchor was dropped and the exploration party set off to the small beach below the lighthouse and the radio message came through to get ashore. Into the zodiacs and a short ride into land. OK you got a little wet and the waves were filling the boat as we disembarked, but it was no hardship. The boat was steadied in the water by two of the bar staff, now transformed into divers, kitted out in dry suits to withstand the cold of the waters. A climb of 160 steps to the cliff top and there we were. On the southernmost island of Chile and South America walking in high winds up the hill.

The amazing Cape Horn albatross memorial to the lost sailors

The amazing Cape Horn albatross memorial to the lost sailors

There is a series of monuments on the island, with the most stunning being the one placed in memory to all the unknown sailors who have lost their lives in the waters. The carving represents an albatross, the true spirit of the oceans and when you stand in front of it you can look through the centre to see the actual Cape ahead of you, further along the island.

Backtracking, you visit the lighthouse and family, offering up gifts to them (I brought fruit and biscuits) and you can have postcards stamped or buy small gifts, before entering a small chapel constructed twenty five years ago and dedicated to the Virgine del Carmen. In the distance, Renato and Cecilia were marching down to the army camp to meet old friends and on leaving the island he had such a look of joy on his face. He had come home to a place that so few people get to visit, let alone spend any time living amid it’s remote beauty.

Time to scare the lighthouse keepers wife and daughter

Time to scare the lighthouse keepers wife and daughter

You cannot really explain the feeling of being in such a place, so far from anywhere, the beauty of it’s barren cliffs and hillsides, the dark and menacing waters, the feeling of the biting wind, all the time knowing that we were safe and secure under the command of the ship. And yet over the years, so many have met their end on the seas around this point, battered by the winds of the Pacific and the Antarctic. And for those that made it they opened up historic routes of discovery and trade, today replaced by the Panama Canal. There is a huge romance to the place and I savoured every moment of my short time here.

As we sailed away, the waters became rougher as we crossed Nassau Bay once again heading for our final stop, Wulaia Bay, a place where Darwin had visited on his second expedition of discovery, meeting local indigenous tribes and being less than complimentary in his journals on what he found…

The bay is stunning. A beautiful setting and a place where the first Europeans settled here to make a life  from gold and later farming before it became untenable  due to the Chilean/Argentinian conflict over control of the area.  We ride into the beach on our zodiacs to find a modern looking house, once a Chilean Miliatary radio station. Once on land we climb the hill to view the breathtaking scene below. We see the first fishing boats who visit these waters for crab, the Darwin mountain range  and the Murray Channel leading out to the seas of the Darwin passage. On the way back down we come across two beaver dams, showing another place where these creatures escaped to across the waters when they were released into the wild. The site of the dam is amazing, such construction and destruction all at one time and then in the lower dam we get to see two of the family, building the dam, sliding in and out of the water with grace and elegance. Wonderful.

The view towards the Darwin Mountains of the Woolaston Islands

The view towards the Darwin Mountains of the Woolaston Islands

And so to the end of our cruise. Tonight we will dock in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost state in Argentina. In the morning we disembark and the group on board go their separate ways. This part of my trip has far exceeded my expectations, incredible scenery, a reawakening on history and cultural awareness, nature and  meeting some great people, all with their own story to tell.

Of course, those people that know me well will realise there is also an untold story from this short voyage. Amusing observations of people and their ways, my outbursts of unsolicited commentary and on this trip my attempts at marriage advice for newlyweds. But that can wait for another time and another place, for what happens on board, should probably stay on board.

I’ve been to the end of the world and now Argentina beckons me back. How will the gauchos cope?

  1. I suspect that you have seen Voyaging, the book by Rockwell Kent. I found your piece while researching a small painting that I have of “Woolaston Island”. There is also one in Baffin Bay, but spelled “Woll…” In the yachting literature there is an account of a yacht that got washed up on the Woolaston Island, but I don’t remember which one. (Not the Smeaton’s who did just about everything else.) I enjoyed your account. Best wishes, Richard

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